In his new book, Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society, First Things editor R. R. Reno provides a unifying analysis of seemingly disparate facets of the current crisis in America. Below I summarize the principal lines of argument in Reno’s analysis. (I’ll quibble with several of his arguments in a later post.)
Reno argues that America is “entering a crisis.” Not everyone recognizes that. Indeed, the divided perception itself is a feature of the crisis Reno sees. Along with other analysts, Reno sees a polarization developing in the U. S. It includes, but is not confined to, economic division. Reno sees disparities that allow one set of Americans to continue to live in growing affluence, while the other set lacks the economic—and, more importantly, social and moral—infrastructure necessary to sustain lives of dignity. This split between Americans, the loss of American solidarity, is what’s new about this crisis.
Because of this bifurcation, Reno posits that Americans who are doing well in today’s environment—fabulously well—do not see the developing crisis. They do not see how their very success in re-ordering American law, policy, and society to provide maximal freedom and support for their own lives has led to devastating consequences to Americans living on the other side of the divide.
The leitmotif of Reno’s book is human dignity. It is a notoriously difficult concept to pin down precisely. Nonetheless, in a sort of “I-recognize-it-when-I-see-it” way, it is at the root of what it means for us to be creatures formed in the image of God, and it is a critical theme in the Catholic social teaching that forms the (largely) implicit backdrop to Reno’s book.
In contrast to the notion of creatures formed in the image of God, a significant alternative conception is not the image in which we were formed, but the image that we project onto the world. In the latter conception, human dignity is respected, and human flourishing provided for, by the removal of any and all impediments to individual choice. This view is superlatively expressed by the plurality opinion of the three moderate justices in the Supreme Court’s 1992 Casey decision: “[I]ntimate and personal choices [are] choices central to personal dignity and autonomy.” At “the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.”
Reno develops several lines of argument against the view that respect for human dignity is consistent with, let alone requires, that liberty be understood as the individual’s projection of the self onto the universe.
First, and perhaps most obviously in a book devoted to “Christian society,” Reno affirms, as it were, that while moral duties can be recognized (or not), they are not merely a matter of self-projection. In this he aims to be non-sectarian, admitting that many of these duties are “natural goods” recognized in many non-Christian societies as well as in Christian ones. In a modern twist, liberty understood as self-projection sees concepts such as the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” as an imposition on human freedom rather than as the ground for liberty. In good foundationalist fashion, Reno argues that affirming an objective moral order provides the very basis for liberty. The subjectivist move of liberty-as-self-projection severs the philosophical and religious roots necessary to create and sustain human freedom.
Second, Reno argues that service and duty give form to liberty, and liberty is actuated through duty and service. This may sound oxymoronic, and Reno draws most directly on the Gospels in arguing this. Nonetheless, he argues intuitively that we recognize human nature as most dignified in the denial of oneself in service to another, rather than in the projection of oneself onto the world.
Third, Reno argues that there is an inescapably social dimension to human dignity. Family and community meet the natural human need and desire for solidarity. These again are not limits on human liberty; they provide the context freely to give up one’s immediate desires to meet the needs of others.
Here Reno advances a pointed indictment. Government laws and policies are collective provisions: A law “supplied” to one part of the community is necessarily supplied to the entire community. Laws that liberalize divorce, for example, obviously provide more freedom, more choice, for married couples. But the impact of availability of this expanded choice does not fall evenly across American society.
Reno argues that the resources available to affluent families give them the wherewithal to mitigate the adverse externalities of divorce when they take advantage of the increased liberty. Children are taken care of, even if shuttled from parent to parent. They live in relatively stable environments and have their needs met. On the other side of the divide, the external costs fall more consequentially. The laws are the same, but families lack the resources to mitigate the impact.
Paul asks rhetorically in 1 Corinthians, “Why should my freedom be limited by another’s weakness?” The re-ordering of American law, policy, and society since at least the 1950s, all in the name of “liberty,” imposed differential costs on different parts of American society. The strong and affluent re-ordered laws and policies for their convenience and to indulge their preferences, while ignoring the impact on the most vulnerable.
Bad news, to be sure. But all is not lost, according to Reno. Christian society, he says, is not about making everyone a Christian. Rather, the Christian social witness testifies to what natural goods are. This witness is not simply about public moralizing—although Reno argues that a bit more moralizing would be useful. Rather, whether religious or not, non-Christians can recognize these goods and therefore Christians should not fear pointing them out. Reno does not argue that American Christians should “Take Back the Public Square!”—but he does argue that they can have a greater social influence, and that this influence would be a salutary one.
James R. Rogers is Associate Professor of Political Science at Texas A&M University.